Not Safe to Fly, Not Safe to Land: Airplane Terror

So This Happened…

The following post is an account of my experience on a recent flight. I will not mention the airline company…for now… depending on how they choose to compensate their passengers for the inconvenience and fear they caused.

I have three fears: heights, confined spaces, and powerlessness. During a trip to the Outer Banks, I confronted two of those fears during a trip inside of a lighthouse, the spiral staircase growing higher and narrower as I got closer to the top. But I was on foot, I could always choose to walk back down the staircase (as narrow as it might be), and so I took control of the situation and made myself go up to the top. I am always okay as long as I can find a sense of control in a situation. But during a recent flight to St. Maarten this summer, I was forced to confront all three of my fears. And it didn’t go well.

My husband and I were so organized, making sure we were packed the night before, with our suitcases waiting downstairs for the taxi that would arrive at 5:40 in the morning to take us to the airport. We arrived early enough to make it through security (I’ll save my TSA rant for another day), find our gate, and still have plenty of time to purchase and eat breakfast before our scheduled 8:25 departure. So there we were, finding our seats at gate C-9, when we looked up at the flight confirmations. Our plane would be late—a 10:00 departure—because it was “awaiting ground crew.” We found this odd because there were three flight attendants seated in the waiting area as if they, too, were waiting for the plane.

We shrugged it off: we would have arrived in St. Maarten early anyway, with no ability to check into our room prior to 4:00. So I bought a sandwich, cracked open a book, and relaxed. Potbelly Sandwich Works even had my favorite, sugar cookies, baked to the perfect level of softness with pink sprinkles. It was a good day. I smiled, thinking that by the end of the day I would have taken a dip in the ocean.

But then our departure time kept slipping. We were told the plane was late coming from California, and it would arrive around 9:15. Then they’d deplane the passengers, do a quick cleaning, and board us for a 10:00, or soon after, departure. They changed our terminal number. Before the 10:00 departure came to fruition, we were told the plane had landed but had air conditioner issues on one side. Mechanics were working on the issue, and we would be given a “10:15 decision” to let us know whether we could board, or whether more time would be required to fix the plane.

At 10:15, we were told the first part the mechanics replaced did not fix the issue, and that another part was being installed. We would be given an update around 11:00. You can see the pattern here. We were given small increments of time so that we did not go wandering around the airport. 11:45. 12:30. My husband and I ate our roast beef sandwiches at 8:30 a.m. (thank goodness I chose something hearty), and with each passing increment of time, we still assumed we’d be able to board and fly in time to eat a late lunch (or early dinner) in St. Maarten. No sense in filling up on expensive airport food. I’d rather have expensive seafood!

Before long, the pattern had continued, and the departure board listed our flight as scheduled to leave at 2 p.m. But then a little before 1:00, we were told the problem had been fixed, and we were ready to board the plane. This seemed strange. By this time, my husband was waiting in the customer service line. He had a bad feeling about the plane, he said. He had lost faith in their ability to fix it and wanted to see if we could get on a different flight. This was unlike him—I’m the one afraid of planes, not him. But we were boarding before he could make it through the line, so he left his spot in line and got on the plane.

I felt something was wrong even as we were taking off. Something just didn’t feel right. But I’m nervous on planes, anyway, so I figured I was just being paranoid. I had my mp3 player all ready to go, and my noise-reducing headphones so that I could escape into my own little world and forget that I was on a plane. I watched the plane climb, higher and—level out. The plane was not climbing higher. I saw mountains beneath us, but they were on the wrong side of the plane. We were not heading south. Based on the amount of time that had elapsed on our flight, we should have been able to turn on our electronic devices, but the order had not been given, and my mp3 player hung silent around my wrist. We were too low in the air. I knew something was wrong.

Sure enough, the pilot or first officer’s voice came onto the loudspeaker. “As you can probably tell,” he said, “we haven’t climbed to our cruising altitude…” It turned out that the air conditioner issue was still an issue, and “because we are flying over the Caribbean, over water for a lot of the way, and the Caribbean is in the mid-nineties, we and air control don’t think it’s a good idea to continue without air conditioning.”

My radar went off immediately. I’m not trying to be paranoid, but I’d like to know: if there was a genuine, life-threatening emergency with airplane equipment, would the passengers be told about it? Would the captain really say, “there’s a good chance we’re not going to make it home alive?” Or would they make up a story—about air conditioning, perhaps?—to explain the strange plane behavior but ensure passengers remain calm? I’m not saying the air conditioning wasn’t broken. But I think the problem was more severe than we were told. I’m pretty sure the problem had to do with cabin pressurization or something similar. And here’s why. We weren’t allowed to go very high before landing back at Dulles Airport. We weren’t directed to fly to an airport further south, to continue our trip at least. We were told to stay low and land as soon as possible. The pilot made it sound like the problem would be flying over ocean, not flying over land. If that were the case, why not fly to Florida, at least? That scared me. Even other passengers thought it suspect that we weren’t directed to fly to Miami or even North Carolina… we were going to be in the air burning fuel, anyway.

Still, the good news for me was that we were turning around immediately and landing. “And so we’re going to return to Dulles, land the plane, and get a further update from there. We should be about 20 minutes out from Dulles,” the pilot told us.

So I watched the clock as twenty minutes passed. My mind was in a state of limbo. I could not think about anything too intensely. As a horror writer, I’m great at imagining worst-case scenarios, and I wasn’t going to let myself go there. I was trying to mediate—to pray, to find the Oversoul, to find peace. Whatever you want to call it, I tried to blank my mind. But deep down, I knew.

We were not heading to Dulles. We were turning around and around. My gut wrenched, and I had a flash of the plane crashing to the ground. I realized how fragile life is, how much humans take for granted about things we do every day, about how close to death we come without ever realizing it. I thought about whether I should have pet my dogs a little more before leaving them with the in-laws. If I should have talked to my parents a few minutes longer before leaving. If I should have called my sister. But twenty minutes was twenty minutes, and I convinced myself I could deal with it. I told myself: in twenty minutes, we’ll be okay. We’ll land. We’ll be safe.

About half an hour later, the pilot came back on. “You’re probably wondering why it’s taking so long to land. Well, here’s the situation. Air traffic control has noted that because of the amount of fuel we have, our plane is too heavy. We can’t land. So we’re in a holding pattern right now until we burn off 12,000 pounds of fuel. It’ll take us a little bit of time to burn that off, but once we do, we can go ahead and land.” I noticed that we were not given a time estimate to burn this much fuel. I knew that meant it was going to be a long time in the holding pattern. Why would we be directed to circle Washington, DC in an airplane for hours rather than simply fly to a location further south? I mean, we were going to burn the fuel anyway, right? It wasn’t right. Something was wrong.

And then I couldn’t help it. Those of you who know me know that I never cry. I don’t cry at movies. I just don’t cry. Whenever a situation becomes too great for me, all I have to do is find something I can control. If there’s a problem, fix it. If there’s a stressful situation, ignore it. Control the problem by not letting it control me. When I was stuck in the 12-hour snow nightmare in January 2011, the thing I could control was helping others—shoveling them out of slush or teaching a Southerner how to drive in the snow. Sometimes it’s only my reaction I’m able to control, as in not allowing stressful situations to penetrate my life or remembering what’s important to me.

But here I was, stuck in a plane, claustrophobic and afraid of heights, with zero control over the situation. I had to depend on the pilot to know what he was doing, the ground crew to make their calculations correctly, the mechanics to have correctly fixed the problem… I was only being given snippets of information… I dealt with the fact that we were going to have twenty minutes of “dangerous” flight time because I knew it was a finite amount. But now, being told without any sense of closure, that we were stuck in a holding pattern? I started crying immediately. I think I was the only one, but I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t loud or annoying, I just couldn’t help it. I was so damn terrified. I had adrenaline pumping through my veins—the fight or flight thing going on, and not a damn thing I could do with it, just sit there in my tiny airplane seat and wait. Once I finished crying I just sat there trembling. If only I could have gotten up and punched a punching bag, or the person who decided the plane was safe to fly, or gone for a run. Just something to do with my energy. But instead, I was stuck in the middle of plane, surrounded by passengers, nowhere near any of the exits, with people now ignoring the fasten seatbelt sign and mingling in the aisles to complain about the plane. My fear of heights had me imagine plummeting to my death. My claustrophobia told me I was going to be trapped on a dangerous plane and unable to get out. FAA guidelines and common sense told me there was no action I could take at the moment. What the hell else could I do but cry?

It was stupid, I know. I told my husband I wasn’t going on vacation, that I was just going to deplane, go home, and drive up to get my dogs. I’d spend the week in my parents’ pool–like a fish, I said, almost as good as the Caribbean. It was fear talking. I knew how stupid it was, to cancel a Caribbean vacation over a stupid plane, but I have never been so scared.

Well, the “holding pattern” lasted for two hours. Two hours of watching the plane maneuver in figure-8’s across the sky. Mountains, farms, housing developments, roads, mountains, farms, housing developments, roads… There was never a more welcomed sight than when we flew over the colossus that is the Loudoun County Public Schools building, truly a landmark visible from above. I knew we were almost at Dulles. And then we landed, and I was never more thankful.

We were told there was another plane waiting for us, and that we’d be boarding immediately. There was little time to buy food. I simply sat on the floor, right in the middle of the terminal, unable or unwilling to move. I just sat there and stared. My husband was making calls—to the hotel and the car rental place, I think. Finally, I stood up. Some people who had been sitting behind me on the plane apparently had seen me upset—how embarrassing—and offered me their Kindle to borrow because they could tell I didn’t like flying. I thanked them, but I had already gone through a book, and had several on my own Kindle. They asked whether I was going to get back on the plane. Their question made me realize how silly I had been. I finally decided to take control of the situation, and I decided to board.

Of course, by this time it was too late to buy food. But we boarded the plane with a handful of pretzels and landed not at 12:30 in the afternoon like we were supposed to, but around 10:00 at night, when even the airport was a ghost town. Luckily, the car rental agencies stayed open for the benefit of the passengers on our flight. Still, there’s nothing as creepy as trying to find your way somewhere in the Caribbean at night. Those of you who visited know what I mean. Things are not clearly marked or organized like they are in the States. And by the time we arrived at the hotel, 11 p.m., all the restaurants had just closed. Still, I’m glad I got back on the plane and faced my fear.

Only one thing: my husband and I had been having an argument over whether to fly or drive to Myrtle Beach the next time we visit. It’s a grueling eight-hour (or more) drive, and I always used to comment that we should fly because the drive seems never-ending. But if I ever say that again, someone slap me. And make me re-read this blog post.